Thursday, October 29, 2009

Good Guys and Bad Guys

(Background: I wrote this essay in one sitting. I forwarded it to my wife. She highlighted my writing in red, where she wanted to comment on it. She highlighted her comments in blue. Rather than rewrite the whole thing, I realized that the essay and her remarks actually make the most sense together!)

One of the important issues that Celina and I discussed before we became parents was how to be "on the same page" when it came to disciplining our daughter. Neither one of us wanted to be the bad guy, but we also knew that there would be times we disagreed on child-rearing decisions. Over time, we have compared notes fairly well, and our daughter is happier and better adjusted for it; she has not often played the "mommy vs. daddy" game, and has found success at it even more rarely.
When teachers make decisions regarding their students, they have a multitude of reasons for doing so, some obvious, some more subtle or longer-term. A teacher might discipline a particular student over a poorly done assignment, with a long-range goal being to improve that student's attention to detail. (Some people might disagree with that statement.) To an outside observer, capturing only a brief glimpse of that exchange, a caring teacher may seem harsh, or uncaring, or somehow ill-informed. A snapshot of an exchange between a demanding teacher and a student who feels defensive about their work would often look unbalanced to a casual observer. But on a deeper level, that teacher is making connections to her student, showing her student that she cares enough to demand better, and knowing that a student is better served by making clear such goals. In the long term, a teacher is building a relationship of caring, trust and important expectations. This paragraph doesn’t work because more thoughtful readers may question your premise – how does the observer distinguish between a “caring, demanding” teacher and one who has unrealistic expectations.
Imagine that my daughter did something wrong, something her mother was upset about and decided to punish her. No one would question that my wife cares about my daughter. (Not true – there has been enough media attention given to abusive parents that this is no longer a given.) But imagine that to me, the selected punishment or consequence was something that I deemed out of bounds, too harsh, too unforgiving, or lacking in understanding. Two ways of dealing with that present themselves to me: I can immediately overrule or disagree with my wife in front of my daughter. If you're reading this essay, you suspect the consequences of that. My other option is to meet with my wife later on, out of range of my daughter's hearing and awareness, and discuss my dissent in private. At the conclusion of this, my wife's authority in my daughter's life has been left intact, while my concerns about that particular situation have been outlined. In the second scenario, my wife and I appear monolithic to my daughter, in terms of discipline. As well, we have worked privately to achieve a consensus, and neither of us has to be the "good guy" or the "bad guy" from my daughter's perspective. Achieving consensus doesn’t always happen. What is the opposing parent’s/adult’s responsibilities and recourse then?
Let's go back for a moment to the first option, the one where I overrule my wife and, in front of my daughter and with her awareness, weigh in on an issue of momentary (what if the issue is not momentary or the observer feels it is not momentary?) importance in my daughter's favor. In that case, I've made my wife look like the "bad guy." I've made my daughter empowered, made her think that if only she can pit me against my wife, she may be able to get her way; short-term success is achieved here, but with long-term consequences to my daughter, my wife and to me.
Imagine that this personal vignette is replayed on a wider scale, between say a Herricks teacher and a parent of a student in their classroom. The student is told that he or she is not allowed some benefit, or privilege, or is to receive a consequence because of an unacceptable behavior. As long as that consequence or lost privilege is within boundaries that school or district guidelines consider to be acceptable, we must trust the teacher to be the one most informed about the relationship she is trying to build with her students. But what may proceed from a parent who thinks that this consequence or loss of a benefit is not acceptable, and acts upon it? That parent, sadly too often in Herricks, may then attempt to have the teacher overruled, by contacting a principal, an administrator and sometimes even the superintendent. If those administrators then overrule the teacher, what are the lessons learned? First, the teacher is undermined, and so too her attempts at building a long-term, trusting relationship with her student. The student himself or herself has now also learned that they don’t necessarily have to respect the decisions their teachers make. The parent too has been empowered, by realizing that anything a teacher decides can now be overruled, by simply contacting the appropriate authority. (I think this is your best paragraph but consider making your language more “approachable.” Overlong and overformal sentences put a distance between you and your audience. You also need to think about this question – when is it acceptable for someone to intervene between a teacher and student? What is the best way to handle such a situation? What are the boundaries? If you make it seem as if the teacher is always right, you’ve already lost your argument. The point should be made more clearly that there are rules of protocol for a reason and those rules include speaking with the teacher first before overruling her.)
There may be times where a teacher’s decision is out of bounds, not necessary, too harsh, and worse, outside the guidelines established by the district. (comes too late in your essay) In those cases, a parent should seek to have the decision overturned, first by contacting the teacher, and next by contacting the appropriate administrator. But if the decision is overturned, without input from the teacher, what instead has happened? The administrator of course, can be the “good guy,” happily providing unhappy parents with the salve they need. And the teacher gets to be the “bad guy,” whose decisions are overruled, whose authority with her student is undermined, and whose relationship with both that parent and student has been seriously jeopardized. (this should come much earlier in your essay if you are trying to be persuasive)
If you’ve read this far, please take one understanding: That if the relationship between teacher and student is the most important part of education, then we must intrude upon it only occasionally, with care, and with a deeper understanding of the impact we may have.
Thanks for your time.

-Frank DeCelie, teacher, October 2009

You’ve let emotion and hyperbole color too much of your essay. Your arguments are weak and easily dismissed. Your real point doesn’t come up until the end – too late for readers who have already stopped reading or are convinced they were not convinced. Your examples are too vague and lack emotional punch. Think instead of what you want to really say. What evidence supports your thinking. There must be more than a single example by now. What have been the consequences of this continued disregard for the sovereignty of a teacher within her classroom who has not violated any district rules? Hope this helps. Love you.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Schools that Learn

After many false starts, I finally finished reading Schools That Learn (Peter Senge, et al., New York: Doubleday, 2000). I realized that although I hadn't read it all through in one long session, that the parts that I did read have stayed with me throughout the past couple of years. In fact, I think some parts of them have been quite haunting!

I still reflect on the idea of a shared vision for schools, and the implications for our work when we are in places that are not working to construct such a vision. At the end of the book, the transcript of a conversation between Howard Gardner and Senge is presented (End Notes, pp.555). Gardner and Senge agree that schools are not necessarily doing a worse job than in 1900, but that the demands on them are so much greater, and so different, that success seems as elusive as ever. Gardner said, "Schools are not in trouble because of bad or incompetent people but because of very poor design relative to the world we live in today." I would go further and suggest that it feels like we are all pulling on the arms of an octopus, in different directions, and only rarely notice that the octopus is not coming with us, and in fact is getting pulled into pieces.

Not only do we still often follow and revert to the factory model of schooling, but our "lock the door and do what you want" model is even less coherent and plausible than ever, since we are not giving teachers the time to construct a collective vision for what we are trying to achieve. Senge opens Chapter 9: School Vision, with a vignette about two different ways of constructing a vision for a school. The first story is about a single day's events, where a vision is presented to the school district by a diligent and hard-working committee, all are congratulated, and teachers return to school, never again to think of that day's work. The second telling of this activity talks about how the process continues for months, with ongoing contributions from all constiuencies, parents, teachers, students and others. The difference is that at the end of the second process, there has been the creation of an outcome that all can respect and be committed to. Without such a shared vision, no amount of hard work on the part of most or even all of the staff will do anything more than keep the merry-go-round spinning.

Early in Schools That Learn, Senge discussed how our schools are still deeply influenced by machine thinking that is hundreds of years old (Senge, p. 52). Worse, although he optimistically talks about the way that a worldview involving "living systems" will eventually permeate our understanding, he suggests it may take another fifty or a hundred years! In the meantime, what can we do, those of us who want to help move things along? Another part of my reflections over the past couple of years have also involved this, the idea that "a living system has the capacity to create itself." (Senge, p. 53) And I think that is where I will try to find focus and meaning in my own work, in the idea that it only takes an idea, a couple of people, and with some luck and hard work, a tipping point might be created. In that sense, all that is needed are a few like-minded souls, and the weaving of a few relationships among them that can impact our work and bring about more effective change more quickly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Why do we look down first?

Why do we always point the finger downward at those "beneath us" when trouble strikes, instead of those above us? Why do we look for a way to blame the guys who mow our lawns when our buildings are struck down? Why do we think it is welfare cheats who cause our financial difficulties, and not those who steal money by the bankful? Why blame the union workers on the assembly line for making $60,000 a year plus benefits while we try to fix our car-manufacturer woes, and not the decisions made by those who fly private jets around the country while leading those companies to ruin?
Too many people I know have a knee-jerk, instinctive reaction to blame those they see on street corners for the troubles we face, and ignore the "masters of the universe" in their glass-encrusted Park Avenue towers, who steal whole entire industries, countries and life-savings. If I get one more email blaming the guys who assemble the Buicks and Chryslers for their "extravagant" salary and benefits packages, and not a SINGLE FREAKIN' email about those who led them into disaster, I'm going to crush the author of that email underneath a ton of Ford F150's!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Schools That Learn

The discussion that Farryl and I had this evening was very in depth and energizing. We discussed the many concerns and issues that we face in trying to provide leadership in our schools, and the sometimes daunting tasks that face us (and many teachers) in trying to bring change to our schools. It was particularly enjoyable because the discussion involved just the two of us, and allowed us to get deeper into our understandings of what challenges each of us face.
In my case, I worked years ago in a tough school district in East Harlem that lacked much in the way of resources, and perhaps more importantly, had much in the way of challenges facing the students. Farryl's circumstances are very similar to that, and she faces daunting challenges in dealing with them at times. In Schools That Learn (STL), we shared our thoughts in particular about the "moral imperative" teachers face in these circumstances: "If we fail to undertake that kind of inquiry into the moral nature and consequences of our actions as educators, then our practices remain unquestioned. Even those practices that have devastating consequences for certain students will continue, unquestioned." (p. 278). In reading that passage, and listening to the quandary that Farryl is facing, I was reminded of the pressures I too felt when faced with such circumstances. That is, if we know in our hearts that something is needed, how can we day after day ignore it? If we know our students need a certain group of skills, or a way of learning, and each day they don't have the chance to obtain that, then what the hell are we doing?
So then we think, we'll get the resources we need and change the world, right? Well, not so fast. I've learned that having the resources removes an obstacle, for sure, but we're still left with the question of what does learning in these times look like, or what should it look like? It's easy to acknowledge that moral imperative that I mentioned above, that self-imposed pressure to "do the right thing." But that just pushes us sometimes into unhappiness, into finding reasons why something can't be done. If we want to effect change, we know in our heart of hearts that we also have to provide a positive direction for ourselves, and we have to find leadership (whether within ourselves or from others) that will help to move things in the direction so many of us feel the need to move.
One of the most provocative parts of the sections of STL that I read involved the discussion surrounding our "core purpose." It narrowly discussed that question surrounding a university's department of education, but the questions, "Why do we exist? What do we want to accomplish? What do we stand for? What do we believe about teaching and learning?" Cambron-McCabe, p. 312) can (should) be the types of questions that EVERY teacher asks. The answers to those questions can be fluid, not necessarily written in stone, but we have to ask them of ourselves and our schools, and we must use them to drill toward our core beliefs. I have faith in my colleagues, I trust that everyone shows up here each day wanting to do their best, and these questions, if we can begin conversations about them, may be the energizing factor that will help us to change our school for the best.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What does "Support our troops" mean?

Sen. Chuck Hagel is a Vietnam vet and a Republican, Sen. Jim Webb is also a Vietnam vet and a Democrat, and they proposed a new GI Bill to support the troops fighting in Iraq, similar to the GI Bill that came about after World War II.
The Bush administration is against it, so the threat of a veto makes it impossible to pass with just Democratic support in the Senate. The bill would therefore need 60 sponsors to be "veto-proof," and that means Republicans like John McCain would need to sign on. But most Republicans, including McCain, have refused.

McCain's reasons were in today's NY Times Magazine:
"...When Webb and Hagel (a close personal friend of McCain’s) proposed a bill to give troops leaving Iraq and Afghanistan more time at home before redeploying, McCain, whose 19-year-old son has served with the Marines in Iraq, forcefully opposed them, saying the troops were needed in the theater. More recently, McCain has found himself on the opposite side of Webb and Hagel again, this time over their “G.I. bill” that would offer education money to every returning veteran. McCain and others want a more limited bill that would encourage rank-and-file soldiers to re-enlist rather than return to civilian life."

Also in that same article today:

"...In his book, Chuck Hagel writes of listening to declassified tapes from the mid-1960s in which Lyndon Johnson admitted to advisers that Vietnam probably couldn’t be won but rued that withdrawal would make him the first American president to lose a war. “I wish someone had told me when I was sitting on a burning tank in a Vietnamese rice paddy that I was fighting for a lost cause just to save a president’s legacy,” Hagel observes acidly."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why change anything if we're doing well?

During our Marratech session, the observation was made, “If 50% of New York City students are dropping out, something’s not working.” The problem for most of the rest of us though, is that we are shielded from the worst consequences of such outcomes because we work in districts where such numbers are safely far enough away from our outcomes. That reduces the pressure to try something new, anything, in order to address those devastating outcomes. As long as our students score in the 90th percentile, who will ask if anything better can be done? What’s missing is a sense of comparison, that if we only measure our students against each other, then a general consensus of failure will insulate us, which is what I think is happening.
Many times in my classroom-teacher past, I have performed miraculous demonstrations of incredibly complex concepts, leapt across great chasms of misunderstanding, and landed on the opposite cliffs of understanding,* only to look back and see the empty looks of students who didn’t get it. At that point, I could of course resort to blaming the students, since my own performance as a teacher was beyond reproach, but one thing kept nagging me: The sense even as I was performing that this wasn’t going to work, no matter how great I performed Why? In simplest terms, because you can’t tell everybody everything, you can’t tell everything to somebody, and you can’t tell some things to everybody. I knew that something else needed to be tried. Luckily for me, those reflections came while teaching in East Harlem, where I was not shielded from the knowledge that many of our students weren’t making it, even out of 6th grade.
At about this same time, I had experience while working in various international banks with tools called computers, which I knew had the potential to help with some parts of the teaching and learning in my classroom. So I started emptying out the closets filled with Apples and Macs and set them up in my classroom and began the imperfect, still-under-way transition from non-differentiated instruction, sage-on-a-stage, single modality of my first classrooms toward a vision of differentiated instruction and activities, and a place where students were valued as having their own knowledge, understandings and abilities that could be valued and could contribute to the success of my classrooms.
My current work mostly in the computer lab of Center Street School seems to be all over the “Paradigm Map,” depending on the class, circumstances and goals. Some days the students search for information themselves, create their own content, questions and solutions to problems. Other times the instruction is more directed, the goals more modest. But compared to my earlier forays, this at least most times has the feel of being real, of connecting to the needs of my students and eliminating the blank stares so often encountered in my classroom teaching days.

*(Tongue planted firmly in cheek here)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Which Way Is It?

I'm in a kind of strange position when it comes to technology. Most of my job involves acting as an evangelist for the kinds of change that technology can bring. My role is to promote the promise of technology and to help with its implementation in any way possible, certainly a role I embrace. And yet any teacher who has been in a classroom for more than a few years quickly learns that too much technology is not teacher-driven, but rather foisted upon us by those with other agendas. TV's were supposed to change learning, so were projectors and film clips. B.F. Skinner even promised teaching machines back in the 50's. I have seen the reality that technology can distract teachers from real learning ("PowerPointlessness"), that it sometimes only promotes commercial interests over educational (closed-circuit TV's paid for by Coke, free computers from Apple and others), and that it often seems to be enhancing inequities among schools and students instead of diminishing them.
The technologies that are seen likely to be implemented in the near-term, such as grassroots video and collaborative technologies, clearly demonstrate this dichotomy of possibilities. On the one hand, the power of video and other collaborative technologies is indisputable in reaching out to people and connecting them in new and powerful ways. Yet I've seen too many times where this ability is its own rationale, that the assumption becomes because we can do this, that we must do this. Too many times in my career, I've seen teachers scared into embracing technologies not because they need them or understand how they can enhance learning, but because they fear the scrutiny of not being on board with the newest thing. Heaven forbid that you are the only teacher in your grade who hasn't published a podcast. My somewhat different position on that is, you should understand the technology well enough to use it when it does something that you could not do otherwise, or as well. But that is not the pressure placed on teachers. Instead, the pressure to embrace the "latest thing" comes from outside the boundaries of what is educationally appropriate, and that (any veteran teacher will tell you) just drives us nuts.
And then, further down the road, teachers hear of technologies such as "collective intelligence" (wikis, etc.) and "social operating systems" and with a panic realize, oh my, we better get on board with this before some parent, administrator or school board member sees us as the only one NOT using this technology! From my work inside the classroom, working with teachers on how to embrace and exploit technology, I have tried to develop a sense of not cynicism (which too many colleagues do embrace), but rather a professional sense of judgment about which technologies should be used, and how they enhance learning. I worry that the unexamined embrace of technology will lead to situations that do not help teachers, students and learning. For example, in the article, Which Technologies Will Shape Education in 2008, there is a quote about weaving the connections and clues of our lives together, "and use them to organize our work and our thinking around the people we know." That notion clashes (mashes?) with another critique I read recently about social networking, that what is happening is that it is connecting people only with people who think like they do, which is most definitely NOT what the goal of teaching is about.
I feel that the more fully I can help to empower teachers to make their own professional judgment about the use of potentially useful technologies, the more that the embrace of those technologies will be truly deep and meaningful, not merely public relations.